© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2021

FRINGE: Transition

Gerrit Gray Doppenberg
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Jadwiga Green at her home in Hoon Hay.   Gerrit Doppenberg

Jadwiga Green isn’t supposed to be here.

By all accounts, she is a success story. She is the only Christchurch comedian to ever win the RAW comedy competition, New Zealand’s most prestigious amateur comedy award. She won the director's choice at the International Comedy festival in 2021 with her first solo hour. If you read her achievements on a piece of paper, you’d think of a blessed life, bouncing from award to award, roses littered at her feet.

But this isn’t the case. Jadwiga Green battled her entire life to be here. A trans woman, she knew from day one that she was a woman despite being assigned male at birth.

“I was younger than 10. I don’t remember what age. I would have recurring dreams of praying to God that I would wake up and people would know me as Jadwiga, as female. Utterly joyful, surreal dreams.”

Green was born in Dunedin in 1991 to a Polish family. Enrolling in St Marys, a Catholic primary school, she found herself quickly enraptured with religion.

“I really liked the bible. I remember being obsessed with this one book that had this graphic depiction of the crucifixion. It was brutal, so gory. I get to school at five, I had no conception of death and morality and I see that, so displayed, inescapable. It shook me.”

Growing up, she loved performing and writing. She played parts in their Easter plays, first as Jesus Christ and the following year as Pontius Pilate.

“I found it just exhilarating and fun playing make-believe and getting to explore stories and see them come to life. I was so proud of myself. I thought, oh, I must be really special.”

But Green found herself in a crisis of faith.

“The things that made me practically reconsider my faith was thinking, why did God put the soul of a female into the body of a male, the soul of a girl into the body of a boy? God is supposed to never make mistakes. So that kind of been a mistake. Why was I like this?”

Growing up with this identity crisis was difficult for Green. She describes the high school experience at Mount Aspiring College as mostly survival, just trying to move through without rocking the boat. She attended the University of Otago, studying theatre studies and English. Her issues with gender continued, despite the new situation she found herself in.

“At university I met people who were like me. But I was still living a half truth, because I thought what I wanted was impossible for me to live authentically. It was crushing.”

It reached a boiling point.

“I made up my mind that I was going to commit suicide after graduation. It sounds bleak and I don’t say lightly. It’s a difficult thing to say. I just thought who I really am, it’s too difficult to live that way.

“I would do one last thing that had any value or worth, that I could give to the people who knew me. That was graduating, doing well with my story. I would present this image of a troubled young man who did what he could to pave a meaningful future for him. So when I died people wouldn’t think I was just a waste of space.”

But graduation came, and Green made the biggest choice of her life.

“I graduated, and that moment came for me to decide to end my life. I thought, well, if I’m that downtrodden and in that dark of a place, what do I have to lose? I might as well come out and see if it’s possible or not.

“And so I came out. And here I am. It worked.” She laughs.

Jadwiga doing some comedy writing
Jadwiga doing some writing on her porch Gerrit Doppenberg

At the age of 22, Green came out to her friends and family. She sought to change her name to Jadwiga, a Polish name. She says that keeping her heritage was important to her during her transition, and asked her grandmother if she could carry her name as a woman.

She first tried out being herself just around friends and family in the region. But after six months she decided to go “full-time” - and be a trans woman in public. Little did she know she was replacing a world of inner turmoil for a world of open discrimination.

“I just came out one day and said enough was enough. I’m really gonna try this. And it was hard! It was really, really hard. Almost immediately you notice discrimination and it hurts to present what is the truest version of yourself to the world and be rejected for it daily. It’s heartbreaking. Being rejected for just being me was brutal.

“Workplace discrimination. Getting discrimination on the street. When I first came out I was high-fem, and so I would get spat on, I would get assaulted. Who goes out of their way to just ruin someone's life like that?”

Green still talks now with a palpable disgust at the frequency of the attacks.

“Thankfully I’ve only been assaulted a handful of times. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve had food thrown at me, or been spat on, literally can’t remember all of it. Being actually pushed or punched isn’t a common experience in New Zealand.

“But I used to get nervous at stop lights because cars would slow down right beside you. And if they wanted to, they could just lean out and spit on you and drive away and you couldn’t do anything. I would get nervous if they turned red, look around and make sure I was safe.

“It was around once a fortnight something like this would happen.”

These experiences changed the way that Green presents herself to the world, both good and bad.

“I haven’t worn a dress in a fair few years. I’m just tired of the way I get treated when I wear a dress. Part of that is just me avoiding the problem, but it’s working. Part of it as well is learning to be resilient. I think it sucks that it’s even necessary.

“There shouldn’t be discrimination in the first place. You shouldn’t have to fight, but learning how to fight has taught me a lot about self-preservation. It’s messy.”

Moving to Wellington, Green made the choice to leave the country for a month for facial reconstruction surgery. Returning to New Zealand upset with the outcome of the surgery, without any money, Green fell into a deep depression. She voluntarily admitted herself into a psychiatric clinic, hoping to stay safe during the bout.

“It was an interesting experience. It taught me a lot and helped me. But there was nothing enjoyable or comforting about it. It just felt necessary.”

Jadwiga Green in her garden
Jadwiga stops to admire some flowers in her garden Gerrit Doppenberg

After a month at the clinic, Green left. With no direction to go in, no money, still facing the same issues that led her to the clinic in the first place, she found a strange respite - the stage.

Her first show was the Wellington Raw quest, a regional heat for the wider national competition.

“I was just in a really weird head space. What is my life, what do I have to lose? I was in an ethereal limbo and thought, I might as well give this a go. My first comedy set was in competition for Raw quest. It was rough but fun. It showed me that all these things I’ve been chewing over while being in hospital had value and meaning to people. It was reaffirming.”

She returned to the clinic, but this time with a goal in mind. After another month, she left ready to face the world and follow stand-up as far as it would take her.

Moving to Christchurch soon after, she performed in the 2020 Raw competition in the South. She won the heat and was flown to Auckland to perform in the finals.

“I did a gig in Auckland that same week. It was so daunting. But getting there on the night and performing, walking off stage, I just remember thinking wow, I might have a chance.”

Not only did she have a chance, she won.

“It was cool. Really cool on a personal level. I didn’t think I would ever see someone like me doing stuff like comedy. It was a special milestone. To give that back to a younger Jadwiga who thought this would be an impossible future.”

She took her show, Cardian Faget, up to the international comedy festival this year and won Director's Choice. She says it's a strange feeling for her to receive such wide recognition for her efforts.

“It’s weird when you’re someone with low self-esteem and a lot of self-doubt. Your immediate gut instinct is to go I don’t deserve this, I’m a piece of crap. It’s a big kick up the backside for me to show myself some love. That’s how I view 2021. The best thing it’s given me is affirmation I’m actually good at what I do and I can say that and not be pretentious.

“I can recognise my strengths. But I’m still grappling with that feeling that I’ve just faked it until now. The curtain will rise, I’ll forget my lines.”

From even just a few years ago, being on the brink of ending it all to now becoming one of New Zealand’s most lauded new comedians, Green has had a storied existence. She felt rejected by the world, but one place has accepted Jadwiga. The streets outside might discriminate against her, but on stage she’s home. It doesn’t matter how quiet the microphones are, Green has something to say. It doesn’t matter how poorly lit the room is, she shines through. Green will continue, surfing on a wave of laughter into a future chipped out of an impossibility.